The Visit Seattle convention and visitors bureau hosted its inaugural Event Innovation Forum last month, connecting senior meeting planners from around the country with leaders in the region’s innovation economy.

Up until 2014, Visit Seattle had a customer advisory board of experienced planners who were flown into the city on an annual basis to help the bureau gain insight into industry trends and best practices. The planners would also meet with convention facilities, hotels, and other tourism and hospitality industry partners.

However, as in many cities, these types of networking events often benefit the host destination more than the planners, who sometimes feel obligated to participate due to their relationship with the bureau as past customers.

Visit Seattle cancelled the process in 2014 because the experience had become somewhat stale and unproductive.

Since then, a growing number of cities worldwide have been promoting their local leaders in their advanced industry sectors to engage meeting planners with a more elevated conversation. Instead of just learning about the convention centers and hotel inventory, planners are now meeting with some of the most innovative people in the city to learn about new developments in business strategy, product development, and customer engagement.

It’s a trend growing across the U.S., and Seattle is in a highly competitive position to leverage that trend. Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Expedia, Weyerhaeuser, and Nordstrom are all headquartered in Seattle, along with a number of smaller companies in retail and hospitality that have built successful brands in the Pacific Northwest over generations.

The new Event Innovation Forum (EIF) is a reworking of the old customer advisory board experience, designed to connect local executives in those above companies with different planners from around the country. The goal is to position Seattle as a world-class hub of innovative companies that visiting organizations can access and leverage with the assistance of Visit Seattle. Furthermore, meeting planners can explore how leaders across Seattle’s innovation economy are disrupting technology, transportation, travel, and other industries at a global level, which they can then implement into their own business development strategies.

“With the EIF, we wanted to create something meaningful to event planners that would make them actually want to come to Seattle, instead of feeling obligated to attend,” said Tom Norwalk, CEO of Visit Seattle. “It’s also a reflection of Seattle through the innovation of our partners and corporations based here. We’re trying to showcase the destination from a slightly different lens, and make this a win-win situation for Seattle’s community and from the customers’ standpoint within their own network of influencers.”

At Boeing’s facilities, for example, representatives from the aircraft manufacturer discussed how they configure plane interiors in terms of material and structural design, space flow, lighting, and overall ambience to seat a large number people in a finite space. The cabin’s user-experience design is based on psychographic research into group dynamics in controlled spaces, which is exactly the kind of insight that resonates with meeting planners.

“Boeing has done extensive research into the psychological needs of passengers during their flying experience,” said Kent Craver, regional director of cabin experience and revenue analysis at Boeing. “These learnings guide our holistic interior design philosophy to cultivate a good first impression by reducing anxiety and creating a sense of welcome. Any venue that involves human interaction with the environment around them, like a trade show space, benefits from a thoughtful, researched approach in design.”

But how, exactly, does Boeing benefit from sharing its design and customer experience expertise with planners?

Leslie Kunde, director of customer relations for Boeing, explained that a healthy, vibrant Puget Sound area is important for the company’s continued success to attract innovative talent. “Showcasing Boeing among other prominent Seattle businesses sends a clear message about the breadth and strength of our community,” she said. “It also shows how our leading-edge environment of diverse and successful businesses is a great place for companies to consider bringing their teams together.”

Expedia Media and Microsoft Mindshare

Expedia Media Solutions was another local company welcoming event planners at the Event Innovation Forum. Monya Mandich, global senior director of marketing and communications at Expedia Media Solutions, explained that the online platform is a leader in traveler segmentation due to the mammoth amount of data on consumer profiles and purchase behavior that the company collects.

That’s valuable insight for planners today due to the growing disparity of generational behavior and educational needs in the meetings industry, especially at association conferences.

For Mandich, the value of Visit Seattle’s Event Innovation Forum is the ability for visiting planners and local companies to share knowledge and best practices.

“We like to hear from the best in the business so that we can get better in the products we develop for marketers and consumers alike,” she said. “Not only were we sharing our learnings, but given the focus group nature of the session, we also gained valuable insights. There was an appetite especially from the group to learn about certain traveler segments that we have investigated deeply, such as the bleisure traveler. Understanding what motivates them, we learned, was highly relevant to the attendees.”

Expedia also showcased some of its most recent work in voice recognition and virtual reality. The planners virtually experienced a bungee jump off the Seattle Space Needle. Then everyone participated in a live user study in Expedia’s innovation lab, which focused on how the planners could potentially improve their organizations’ websites.

Denise Begley, senior event marketing manager at Microsoft, represented the technology company’s networking session during the Event Innovation Forum. Her role was to explain to meeting planners how Microsoft leverages its relationships with customers and the people of Seattle to highlight Microsoft’s customer experience and brand story.

“Our strategy is all about making sure our community and our customers’ voices come through, not just the voice of Microsoft, which is a lot more effective to tell our story,” she said. “The whole landscape in Seattle is creative, and there’s such a culture of reinvention here. We always want to show how we can step out of our box to be creative, which is really what Visit Seattle’s staff also wanted to highlight.”

The Takeaways For Planners

One of the event planning professionals invited to the event was Bobby Heard, associate executive director of the American College of Emergency Physicians association. A long-time participant in planner advisory boards with different cities, he said, “We’ve done so many of these. They’re so formulaic, where everyone’s asking the same questions, that we could probably run them ourselves.”

Heard emphasized he’s always interested in learning about innovative business strategy and how to approach product development and customer engagement. He liked the Event Innovation Forum because he said it provided access to top business leaders that he might not have had access to before, and he appreciated how the insight was relevant for people who organize large events from a strategy and customer experience standpoint.

“One of the messages we heard repeatedly was that leading organizations have to foster a culture that accepts failure, as long as you’re continually learning,” explained Heard. “Whereas, associations are usually incredibly risk averse and they’re always trying to fill the ocean, so we need to learn how to iterate and focus on incremental challenges. That’s applicable to our entire organization.”

He continued, “You know, some of the takeaways from the event might seem simple, but they can be hard to implement. That’s really key when it comes to how you get people to buy in to new ideas.”

Alison McIntyre, vice president of event management at the ‎American Bankers Association, also participated in the Event Innovation Forum. She was impressed with how Expedia has reinvented itself as a content company, and how it maintains an innovation culture. She also liked meeting the representatives from Seattle’s local Filson adventure outfitters company, which was founded 120 years ago to supply gear for people heading to Alaska’s Gold Rush.

“From an event planner’s standpoint, it was really interesting learning how those companies handle change,” she said. “The big takeaway was it’s okay to fail. You have to continually experiment, because if you don’t, you’ll eventually be irrelevant.”

McIntyre also appreciated time meeting with Brian Canlis, a third-generation owner of Seattle’s James Beard award-winning Canlis restaurant. The discussion behind the scenes at the restaurant focused on the importance of: investing in employees, understanding the millennial mindset, story-telling in service training, and creating a sense of family.

“It’s nice to have those fresh voices and fresh insight, and they really gave something back to me and my organization, which doesn’t happen very often at these events,” McIntyre said. “I think it’s really about changing the conversation around meetings beyond infrastructure. People always talk a lot about infrastructure when they’re selling their cities, but they don’t always connect with us well. Seattle showed us they have a lot of dynamic thought leadership and real innovation to share, and it would be great if other cities could do the same.”

Norwalk, however, cautions that something like the Event Innovation Forum takes a lot of work to organize. He said that everyone at the bureau and the corporate partners throughout the city understood the value proposition behind the event, but each organization had to ensure that the individual networking and educational sessions applied directly to the needs of meeting planners.

“Everyone realized there could be a different way to approach the typical customer advisory board, so changing that wasn’t a tough selling job at all,” he said. “The difficulty was in developing the itinerary of unique partners who could add something around brand or design or customer experience that would be attractive to the meeting and event planners coming.”

Next year’s Event Innovation Forum should be easier to develop because now there’s a template to show different organizations around Puget Sound.

“We really wanted a mix of technology, food, retail, and manufacturing, and I think we accomplished that well,” Norwalk said. “In version two, we’ll be including more people from Microsoft and probably Amazon, because we didn’t want to put it all out there in the first year.”

Photo Credit: Executives from Visit Seattle and various national associations gather at Seattle's iconic Pike Place Market. Visit Seattle